Richard Wilson’s Shakespearean debut comes in the form of Gregory Doran’s opulent Twelfth Night, set against a background of decaying antiquities, burnt orange and purple hues, Middle Eastern music and a healthy dose of utter confusion.
Drunken rogues, uptight stewards, feisty countesses, cross-dressing adolescents and love at first skewed sight are all in a confusing day’s work for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s unashamedly camp production of mistaken identity and twisted romance.
Set in 19th century Illyria, Doran’s production transforms the Duke of York’s stage into a crumbling stone court, where musicians lounge on rugs which might have been taken straight from the RSC’s current Stratford Upon Avon production of Arabian Nights, creating a sensual and rich contrast to the black suited gentry of the Countess Olivia’s court.
It is in this strange world that Viola finds herself quite literally washed up after a shipwreck separates her and her brother Sebastian. Deciding to enter the Duke Orsino’s court dressed as a man, her good, if slightly bizarre, intentions cause a spiral of events leading to unrequited love, heartbreak, comedy and confusion.
Wilson is perfectly cast as the pompous steward Malvolio, bringing a level of fragility and sadness to the role, whilst also portraying the character’s intensely annoying party pooper persona with ease as the audience recognise the Victor Meldrew scowl as far back as the Royal Circle. His object of affection, the sultry voiced Olivia, is played by Alexandra Gilbreath, whose manic portrayal of a precious princess steals the show; as does her fool Feste (Miltos Yerolemou), who transforms from court jester to whirling dervish, both the play’s puppeteer and mischievous observer all at once. James Fleet, as a hair-flicking Russell Brand wannabee, forms an excellent double act with Richard McCabe’s riotous degenerate Toby Belch.
Doran’s Twelfth Night is not afraid to be both silly and heartbreaking, conventional and playful, and is three hours of pure escapism. But where the director’s magic touch for Shakespeare really comes into play is during the final scene, where the idea that all’s well that ends well ignores those that have been trampled over and conveniently forgotten about in order to reach the happy ending.